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3-D printing technology poised for growth in 2014

The year 2014 could be a big one for 3-D printing technology, but when it comes to accessibility and safety, there's still much room for improvement.

If 2013 was the year that 3-D printing technology eked its way into the mainstream thinking of businesses and consumers alike, 2014 is shaping up to be a key stepping stone for the still nascent technology. With growing numbers of companies devoting resources to investigate the technology's potential, and with prices of 3-D printers dropping as mass interest builds, this year could bring significant advancements not only in the technology itself, but in the way it's used, experts say.

In a reversal of the consumerization trend that's been taking hold in enterprises, business will be leading the way. Whereas those in the industry agree that the consumer 3-D printing market is at the peak of the hype cycle, enterprises are much further along on the adoption curve.

"We've crawled out of the peak of inflated expectations and have gotten to the productivity stage," said Pete Basiliere, a Gartner Inc. analyst who watches the space closely. "Virtually every business worldwide can benefit in some way from 3-D printer output."

3-D printing technology revenue to grow in 2014

That combination of growing adoption and widespread potential impact is why Gartner is so bullish on the market. In a recently published report authored by Basiliere and several other analysts, Gartner predicts that 3-D printer revenue, which it pegged at $288 million in 2012 and estimated at $412 million for 2013, will reach $669 million in 2014 -- well on its way to $5.7 billion by 2017.

Next steps

In its recent report on the 3-D printing market, Gartner Inc. recommended three high-level actions that its analysts believe are needed to push business use of the technology forward.

Two of these recommendations are directed at IT leaders, who, Gartner says, should do the following:

- Implement 3-D printers whenever feasible, even if only in research labs, in order to understand how IT will be expected to support the creation, output and archiving of the resulting 3-D content.

- Consider formally evaluating the potential impact of 3-D printing on supply chains and product intellectual property.

The remaining recommendation targets 2-D printer manufacturers, who Gartner says must embrace 3-D printers not only to ensure that they benefit from the growth potential, but also to fuel additional demand.

Gartner analyst Pete Basiliere, one of the report's co-authors, also suggests that companies looking to produce goods with 3-D printers need to ask themselves some important questions before investing in the wrong technology:

1. What do I want to produce?

2. What material am I going to work with?

3. How many will I produce?

4. Is the product a commodity or something personalized?

The answers to those questions, Basiliere says, will help companies establish their 3-D equipment-buying strategies.

In particular, Basiliere expects the technology to start appearing next year in regions where it's been largely unknown.

"You're going to see a much wider worldwide acceptance and use of 3-D printers," he explained. "We'll see more companies creating 3-D printers and selling them into less-developed countries."

Market momentum aside, the technology itself still is characterized by a number of constraints that limit its impact. While prices have come down -- Gartner estimates that sales of 3-D printers priced below $100,000 will have grown by 49% in 2013 -- the technology accommodates a narrow range of printing materials and remains sluggish, with an inch of vertical height taking as much as four hours to print, Basiliere noted.

What that means is that businesses are likely to be very selective about how they use 3-D printing technology. Using it to create rapid prototypes has been all the rage, and analysts say that, at their current price point and maturity, 3-D printers are much better suited for creating custom products than they are for doing anything on a mass scale. As an example, Basiliere pointed to the hearing aid industry, where back-of-ear devices are standard and mass produced, whereas devices that fit inside the ear are custom made for each individual, and thus ideal for 3-D printing.

Simplicity coming to 3-D printing technology

In addition, 3-D printing technology has been held back by its daunting complexity, which requires computer-aided design (CAD) software, scanners and a repository of files that serve as blueprints. It's certainly not as simple as selecting "print" from a pull-down menu in a text document.

But experts predict that that kind of simplicity probably isn't a long way off. "I don't think we'll see the Microsoft Word equivalent of a 3-D design environment this year," said Eric Hanselman, an analyst with 451 Research LLC. "But we're getting close."

Hanselman also foresees a sort of iTunes-style marketplace for 3-D design. He noted that a transition is under way, in which people working with 3-D technology -- in both the consumer and enterprise arenas -- are increasingly looking to acquire 3-D models in the same way they acquire clipart. He doesn't necessarily expect that kind of marketplace to appear in 2014, but he's confident it's on its way.

What Hanselman does expect to see more of in 2014 is the potential dark side of 3-D printers, specifically their use to create keys for nefarious purposes. That trend was signaled earlier in 2013 at the Def Con hacker conference, where two MIT students released code they developed that lets anyone create a 3-D-printable software model of a key -- provided they have the original -- to one of Schlage Co.'s high-security Primus locks. These are keys that are marked with the instruction, "Do not duplicate."

The students in question, David Lawrence and Erik Van Albert, offered up the code to highlight the fact that high-security keys are getting easier to copy, and that it's time for high-security facilities to dump traditional key locks in exchange for electronic locks that require cryptographic keys.

Gartner, for its part, doesn't limit the potential misuse of 3-D printing technology to key reproduction. In its recent report, the firm predicts use of 3-D printers will be used to steal intellectual property (IP) by replicating copyright- and patent-protected goods. By 2018, Gartner predicts, 3-D printing will directly result in the theft of at least $100 billion worth of IP annually.

As big a number as that is, Gartner anticipates that the positive impact of 3-D printers will outstrip it. For instance, it expects 3-D printing to transform the retail industry by enabling retailers to deliver custom-manufactured products that otherwise would be out of stock. More specifically, it predicts that by 2018, seven of the 10 largest multichannel retailers will be doing this.

It also expects the 3-D opportunity to rejuvenate the printer industry, predicting that at least two of the major 2-D printer manufacturers will be selling 3-D printers under their brand names by 2016.

In other words, the time to expand is now for the two companies that currently dominate the market for 3-D printers for business, Stratasys and 3D Systems. A year from now, if all goes as expected, they're likely to find a more crowded vendor landscape.

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